By Carly Fallon
It’s been six months since the new SQE route to qualification was launched. How time flies! As a result, we have now entered something of a transitional period, with some aspiring lawyers committed to the GDL/LPC pathway, and others racing down the new SQE route.
Back in November 2021, some 1090 candidates took the plunge, sitting the first ever SQE1 exam. The exam was hosted by over 100 law centres around the world and pass rate of 53% was reported. But brace yourselves, the SRA expect these numbers to surge to around 10,000 candidates per year, once the transitional period comes to an end.
We thought it would be a good time to revisit the new regime, now that the mists have cleared and the wheels are turning. A good time, perhaps, to consider what law firms should be doing (and when) in order to attract new ‘trainees’.
Why the change to qualification?
Before we drill down to the detail, let’s re-visit the thinking behind the SQE route. The SRA has designed the new pathway in a bid to offer greater flexibility, accessibility and frankly a cheaper way to qualification. Fees are expected to be slashed by streamlining the academic process and the option to earn-while-you-learn will be particularly attractive to wanna-be lawyers and those with families and mortgages to consider.
Sounds promising, but with so much flexibility on offer, law firms might be forgiven for wondering how to recruit? And when?
The easy answer is that it rather depends on the level of experience that you need within your firm. Training contracts were formerly the domain of those who had achieved a solid legal grounding, by way of an undergraduate law degree/GDL and the LPC to boot. But that is all behind us. From now on, law firms and other qualifying legal service providers are now expected to offer up periods of legal training to those who may be further behind in terms of their legal knowledge.
The SQE route allows for non-law graduates to sit the two-part SQE exams. It is up to the candidates to determine how they should prepare for these. Where no former legal training has been achieved, there are now SQE preparatory courses and the option to gain legal work experience via a period of Qualifying Work Experience, or ‘QWE’.
Aspiring lawyers will no longer find themselves scrambling for a training contract in the way that we know it. There are no more rotating ‘seats.’ No more compulsory litigation placements, and no more early morning latte for the training principal. Ok, so this is unlikely to be scrapped!
Let’s take a closer look at the SRA’s ‘four building blocks of qualification’ and how it impacts legal recruitment.
- Firstly, candidates need to have a degree. This doesn’t necessarily need to be a Law degree, although we have noted that some universities will now place special emphasis on legal skills, as well as devoting time to legal theory.
- Secondly, candidates will need to pass both SQE examinations. Remember folks, the SQE is not a course, like the LPC. Instead, it is a two-part examination, split into:
- functioning legal knowledge;
- practical transactions and legal skills
The exams can be taken within a calendar year but again, there can be a break if the candidates/law firms so choose.
- Thirdly, candidates must complete two years’ of Qualifying Work Experience (QWE). This can be achieved in one block or over a period of time. This is where the SQE route really comes into its own. Some points to note include:
- QWE can be done at any stage of the qualification process (prior to, during, or post SQE examination phase)
- It can be completed in a variety of legal settings and not just within private practice (as was the case previously). So, this could include in-house legal departments, law clinics (but excluding simulated legal scenarios), paralegal work and law vacation placements.
- QWE can be obtained in up to four different legal establishments, whether in the UK or abroad.
- Candidates are required to complete a record of attainment to demonstrate that the solicitor competence requirements have been achieved. This is then signed off by the COLP, or indeed any other solicitor, and logged by the candidate on the SRA portal.
- Law firms may wish to rethink the way that they structure placements/employment, to ensure that the solicitor competence requirements expected by the SRA are met. Unsurprisingly, these objectives are geared towards the Standards and Regulations expected of qualified fee earners.
- During these QWE placements, law firms can assess the competencies of the individual, and decide whether or not to offer an NQ position, once they are fully qualified.
In summary, the trainee has a huge amount of control over their own route to qualification. You might say that there is a fundamental shift in the balance of power – law firms and law schools are no longer the gatekeepers to qualification.
- The final stage in the qualification process is that the candidate must satisfy the SRA’s character and suitability criteria. This aspect remains the same as for the traditional route to qualification.
Given the flexibility of the SQE qualification route, you may be wondering how on earth this fits together? When should you look to recruit candidates for a period of QWE? This will no doubt come down to your own recruitment needs and whether your firm prefers to recruit law undergrads at an early stage, or wait for non-law grads to shine through with their diverse skills and preparation course results.
The bottom line is that there is inherent flexibility in the system.
You can also consider the option to recruit from within your experienced staff members. The SQE route is also available to (graduate) paralegals, should they wish to qualify as a solicitor.
What is clear is that law firms are able to work with candidates in a flexible way, in order to help them on their way to qualification. It is also an option for you, as a business to assess the qualities of a candidate for a shorter period of time, prior to offering permanent employment into an NQ role. Food for thought?
However you choose to recruit, the SQE has to be a win-win for the profession, right?
If you have any thoughts on the SQE route to qualification or would like more guidance, please drop us a line.